5 September: Remembering Corky Lee

OV Digital Desk
3 Min Read
Corky Lee

Image Courtesy: Google Doodle

Corky Lee (5 September 1947 – 27 January 2021) was a Chinese-American activist, community organizer, photographer, journalist and the unofficial Asian American Photographer Laureate.

Life and Career

Lee was born in Queens, New York City to Chinese immigrant parents on 5 September 1947. When he was in school as a young boy, he learned about the transcontinental railroad in social studies class. During the lesson, he saw a photo that celebrated the completion of the railroad—but noticed a lack of representation for the thousands of Chinese laborers who helped build it. Lee later shared that this event inspired his life’s work. He went on to teach himself photography and attended Queens College to study history.

Throughout his career, Lee attended protests, rallies, and demonstrations where he captured powerful moments that depicted the struggles and achievements of the Asian-Pacific American community. Notably, in 1975, he snapped a photo of young Chinese American Peter Yew as he was dragged away by police. Yew had intervened upon witnessing a 15-year-old boy being beaten by police for an alleged traffic violation. Yew was also severely beaten on the spot and at the station before being charged with resisting arrest and assaulting an officer. A week after the photo was taken, thousands of Chinatown residents gathered to protest the rampant police brutality in their neighborhoods.

Across his life, Lee’s photos were included in countless publications like Time Magazine, The New York Times, New York Post, and more. He also won many awards for his works, and his life has been covered in movies like Not on the Menu: Corky Lee’s Life and Work (2013) and Photographic Justice: The Corky Lee Story (2022).

Later in life, Lee often visited Promontory Summit in Utah to recreate the photo that had been taken when the transcontinental railroad was completed. He invited several descendants of the Chinese laborers who were not pictured back in 1869 in an effort to show that Asian American history is American history.

Lee died at Long Island Jewish Hospital in Forest Hills on 27 January 2021. He was 73 and developed complications of COVID-19 in the time leading up to his death.

Award and Legacy

His photos recorded the diversity and nuances of the Asian-Pacific American community often overlooked by mainstream media. He won many awards for his works and his life has been covered in movies like Not on the Menu: Corky Lee’s Life and Work (2013) and Photographic Justice: The Corky Lee Story (2022)1. On May 5th, 1988, “Corky Lee Day” was proclaimed in honor of his lifelong contributions to New York City’s communities.

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